Post 200 Roadshow: Crowell & Moring

Welcome to a new feature we're calling the Post 200 Roadshow. We're dropping in on the region's biggest companies, nonprofits, employers and law and lobby firms to have a look around and chat up their executives. We stopped by law firm Crowell & Moring, which has more than 400 attorneys. You can check out the Post 200 here.

By Terri Rupar

Maybe the phrase heard most often at law firm Crowell & Moring: "I know this sounds corny, but..."

One of the ducks in Crowell & Moring's fountain. Michigan grad Scott Winkelman hadn't seen it. (Photos by Terri Rupar - The Washington Post)

They speak to the reason I wanted to visit. While writing up their mini-profile for the Post 200, I was intrigued by the company's description of its culture, which emphasized a sense of humor and work-life balance. Was it true? Crowell & Moring's mascot is a duck - rubber duckies populate the fountain in the lobby of the company's offices, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The address is a good one, and the offices are nice but don't scream "big, important law firm," lacking the dark wood paneling and large leather chairs one might imagine. "We are substance, we are not form," said executive committee member Scott Winkelman.

Scott Winkelman

Reporter Tom Heath sat down with Winkelman, co-chair of the torts practice, in his corner office, which has pictures of his native Michigan, a large toy lizard on the floor, and on a table figures of Detroit Red Wings players hoisting the Stanley Cup and a toy CSX train (a client). He described the culture as collaboration with a healthy dose of enjoying yourself. It's about "not resisting the duck," Winkelman said. Partner pay is based on not just the amount of business someone brings in, but also on contributions to firm life, governance and public service.

After Heath's interview with Winkelman, I chatted with four attorneys: Keith Harrison, Angela Styles, Mark Supko and Kris Meade. They talked about collaboration, about how clients compliment the firm on the fact that when they ask, say, a torts lawyer for advice on employment issues, a lawyer from the employment practice will call back the same day. They try to ensure that new hires fit in with that culture. Associates meet with about eight partners. Beyond the good law school credentials that any firm would look for, they look for "fire in the belly" and an entrepreneurial spirit, Meade said - that means someone who will help develop business and be flexible in how they staff a case.

With potential new partners from outside, the process is even more rigorous. "I think I might have met everybody" when coming in as a partner, Styles said. The firm has low attrition, especially for partners who come from other firms, something Harrison, Styles, Supko and Meade attributed to the culture. All four said they very well might retire at Crowell & Moring - and definitely wouldn't leave for another law firm in Washington.

Harrison brought his whole firm, from the receptionist on up, when he joined Crowell & Moring in November 2006. He didn't think he would join a bigger firm. "Big firms don't really have good cultures, generally," he said. But he was drawn in by Crowell & Moring, which "had a reputation as great lawyers who were good people." Almost everyone who came with him is still at Crowell & Moring, he said - one secretary left for three weeks and then came rushing back. The firm has a particularly low attrition rate for people who come in as partners from other firms. Lawyers don't have to spend time in the office just to be put in time, they said, but they can work from home if they need to.

Styles said Crowell & Moring has an active women's committee that hosts events such as a wine tasting at Zola and a gathering at a Nationals game for female employees and female clients. One female attorney a while back pointed out that she and her female clients don't like to play golf, Styles said. So, that attorney said, the firm would reimburse her for a spa visit with said client. And it did.

Supko said one attraction of the firm was that younger lawyers could get courtroom training faster. Two ways they get time in the courtroom are through the new mock trial program, which started in January, and the pro bono program. Meade said that gives lawyers a lot of in-court and cross-department experience, in matters such as landlord-tenant disputes and asylum cases. The firm also prides itself on handling death row inmates.

And those aren't its only clients that might be less than popular with the general public. When the firm started, one of its focuses was on government contractors, and now it represents many of the big ones, including Lockheed Martin of Bethesda and Blackwater. "I think this firm takes a lot of pride in its handling of tough cases" from companies that don't have the best public perception, Harrison said.

Took Crowell

The heart of the firm, I was told, is Eldon "Took" Crowell, one of the founders. (He says the nickname, which is how everyone at the firm addresses him, comes from the noise his father made when he was an infant.) Crowell is proud of three things, he said. The first is Cheap Booze, a Thursday tradition at all the firm's offices - New York, Brussels, London, Irvine - that involves free food and alcohol for all lawyers and staff. "You can see and feel the experience of the law firm," he told me as people mingled, chatted, ate barbecued chicken and hot dogs and watermelon, and sipped on beer and wine. Crowell had Sprite. "They're all yapping, they're all yelling."

Watermelon was served at last week's "Cheap Booze," along with hot dogs, barbecued chicken and free beer and wine.

The next item is the Took Tour, in which Crowell takes first-year attorneys on a tour of parts of Washington they might not otherwise see. He wants them to see where they firm does pro bono work and connect with the city. And last is the Took Think Trophy, given to an associate based on nominations from partners. It's a metal box with a man sitting outside it, illustrating the innovation the firm is looking for. "You can't just work. You have to think," said Crowell, 84. The winner also gets $100 - and the dubious honor running the competition next year.

The fountain where the ducks float was Crowell's idea, he said. "I said, 'I think we're getting to be a little too stuffy. ... What we need is more excitement." He also wanted the chairs in the "play room," the firm's largest conference room, to be covered in yellow and red, but that idea was short-lived, he said - they're not more muted jewel tones. Crowell said that as the firm grows - which it has been doing quickly, increasing its attorneys by 24 percent from 2004 to 2007 and revenue by 46 percent in the same period - maintaining its culture is critical. As of the end of March, Crowell & Moring ranked No. 9 among law firms based on the number of lawyers.

The culture is hard for new partners to understand, Crowell said. "They think we're selling them a bill of goods." But right now, it has the culture he tried to cultivate when he and other attorneys broke away from Jones Day in 1979 and the kind of clients he wants. Though his political leanings might not match up exactly with those of many of those clients. Crowell, who said he dressed up for the occasion by putting on a tie, had his Obama '08 cap on.

Crowell said the most exciting thing that has happened to him lately is the passage of the GI bill, drafted by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) - who Crowell said would be his pick as Obama's running mate.

By Terri Rupar  |  July 24, 2008; 12:31 PM ET  | Category:  Post 200 Roadshow
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